Effective Leadership Means Asking the Hard Questions

Mrs. Koss, both feared and revered, taught American History at Stone Ridge. Virginia Koss, or Ginny, perhaps, to the other teachers was a very severe Mrs. Koss to me and the other students in our high school. We all knew that Junior year would be tough, especially because of Mrs. Koss’ class.

Mrs. Koss had a spirited way of teaching, which included outrageously colorful clothing and an outdated bouffant hairstyle. It was years after graduation when I heard reports of students seeing her after hours in grocery stores or around town dressed more normally. Only then did I guess that her unique wardrobe was just another in her bag of tricks to incite her students to pay attention. Mrs. Koss taught me a lot, though I’ve forgotten most of the detail; but what I never forgot was her emphatic insistence on “so what?”

On each exam Mrs. Koss presented the students with several ID—or identification—questions. For each topic—the Dred Scott Decision, the Teapot Dome Scandal, Roosevelt’s Third Term—the student had to ID who, what, when, where, why, how, and, at the end, identify the so what. While the first six had clearly correct answers, the “so what?” captured each student’s interpretation of how that event changed the course of history—why it mattered beyond the facts.

I often reflect on Mrs. Koss’ class in my daily work today. The field of leadership can be academically segregated from its practical use, and leadership and management are often inextricably confused in their evaluation. Good managers don’t necessarily make good leaders, and vice versa. And what is a good leader, anyway? A great deal has been published in these pages on the mindset and experience of a global leader. Yet, regardless of what they have seen or done, leaders committed to chart the course to shared value and mutual gain, especially in emerging markets, must insistently ask, “so what?” (The field of international development and global engagement has far too few who do.) In operationalizing programs that contribute to catalytic growth, leaders must answer this question, and avoid the risk of mistaking it for others.

“Why?” Isn’t

 the Same as “So What?”

It’s easy to mistake “why?” for “so what.?” The “why?” for an agribusiness development program may be to increase the income of smallholding farmers. This, of course, seems like a valid and important goal, but so what? Is it so they can have food security for their families? Is it so they can send their children to school? Is it for improved health outcomes over time? Implementers may claim all of the above intended results in a program proposal, but the reality is that without a committed focus on “so what,” it is easy to fail to incorporate this important consideration into a program’s operations.

It is a fact that one, or three, or (best case) five-year funding cycles force a focus on outputs, and even outcomes—an output in the example above being 300 farmers trained and a farmers’ association launched, an outcome being the average increased income of 25%. But this type of program and funding timeline doesn’t demand answers to the longer-term questions, nor does it track the longer-

term implications. It also does not oblige us to ask the appropriate questions about the possibly negative implications of international development work. For example, are the increased incomes being used to buy far less nutritious, albeit more convenient, food than what was previously consumed? Are increased income disparities driving more social wedges into the community?

In the program design phase, answering the “so what” question can seem like reading a crystal ball, but the reality is that leading international development entities have enough years of experience with many types of interventions to be able to make some educated “so what” guesses for the future by analyzing the “so what” of the past. Unfortunately, many tend to analyze outputs and outcomes, claim success, and take the same approach the next time. What if it were possible to instead leverage this deep experience, as well as the strong relationships with people and communities that accompany it, to think through how the significantly increased income of 300 farmers in a community of 1,200 farms may change those families and that community. Might it be possible to better predict whether those efforts will truly drive positive change, and if so, how other types of local capacity might be built to accommodate those changes?
Indeed, the why is extremely important, but in leading efforts that catalyze real change, leaders cannot mistake “why?” for “so what?”

Avoiding Unintended Consequences

Another case in which “so what” has been woefully under-scrutinized is the global effort toward universal education. The bilateral and multilateral development institutions—along with private foundations—have poured billions into raising awareness about the importance of education and getting children, especially girls, into schools. This is, no doubt, an important mission and yet it seems clear that the international development community largely failed to anticipate what would happen when those children actually came to class.

I was recently observing a math lesson in a village in rural Rajasthan, India where I counted 72 children at three different grade levels in one classroom. Is it good that the kids are in school and learning something? Yes, probably. Does that kind of classroom foster deep learning and critical thinking? Unlikely. In fact, Brookings Institute’s Africa Learning Barometer shows that there are seven countries in which 40 percent or more of children do not meet a minimum standard of learning by grades four or five.

Classroom size is just one challenge in absorbing large numbers of new students: school infrastructure, instructional materials, and both number and quality of teachers are lacking across countries of the global south, where the largest push has been made to get children in school. That is probably not shocking given an entrenched inability to address those same issues in the United States. Yet, the reality is that across countries of Africa and Asia, education reformers are now doubling-back, trying to resolve the resource issue exacerbated by the push for universal education. How might circumstances be different if leaders had planned better for the future instead of attempting to reverse-engineer a quality educational experience?

In my personal experience, the most egregious failure to consider “so what” can be found in the early- 1990s support of the United States government and its expert consultants, alongside reform-minded Russian leaders, for mass privatization in that country. In the minds of the architects, the “why” was clear—the economy needed to be stabilized, and the “how” was evident—shifting ownership of enterprise from state to private hands. The “who” did not matter, as the prevailing belief was that any private hands, regardless of the quality and motive of those hands, were better than state hands.

There was certainly ample experience to draw from more developed markets regarding the required controls, institutions and other infrastructure to limit self-dealing and other forms of corruption. It also did not take a genius to realize that the average person who had never operated in a market economy was unlikely to have a deep understanding of the potential value of corporate shares. Given that Russia started down the path of mass privatization without stabilizing the macroeconomic environment, creating or strengthening control institutions, or conducting appropriate public education on the matter, it is hardly surprising that the economy crashed—hard—again in 1998. I spent some seven years, beginning in 1995, consulting on post-privatization restructuring of dozens of those enterprises and came away certain that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people had gotten a very, very bad deal. The kleptocracy that took hold as a result of those 1990s reforms still runs the country today; it turns out the who and how did matter a great deal.

Why Not Require “So What?”

The challenges that face the world today are often simply categorized: education, health, water, nutrition, poverty, security. Too often, leaders evaluate these issues in a vacuum, in no small part because funding for programming to address these challenges tends to be stove-piped, making it easier to track the “whys” and “hows,” but dumbing down incredibly complex and interwoven issues. And, often, it’s easier not to ask “so what” because answering isn’t easy, it’s often uncomfortable, and it sometimes leads to the conclusion that the execution of a given plan may do, or did, more harm than good. Individually, we must commit ourselves to become more effective global leaders, whether within corporations, governments, NGOs, or local communities. And, in collectively seeking to build a better world, I challenge all of us to be courageous enough to more often ask ourselves, and one another, “so what?”

Mrs. Koss would certainly agree.

Deirdre White

Deirdre White

Deirdre White is a globally recognized leader in building tri-sector partnerships to address the world’s most pressing challenges. As CEO of PYXERA Global, she has led the transformation of the organization to one that maximizes impact through strong and strategic partnerships.


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